Guest Post: The One-Body Problem

by @scidoctress

I hold immense respect for my female friends and colleagues who are struggling to advance their own academic careers alongside a spouse’s. I’ve watched brilliant women find a plethora of creative solutions to the “two-body problem,” as it’s termed, from negotiating spousal hires to commuting great distances to settling for second- or third-choice jobs, sometimes even leaving academia altogether. I have attended countless seminars on work/life balance where the same inevitable questions arise: How do I balance my commitment to my children with my commitment to my research career? How do I juggle my husband’s career demands with my own? How do my academic husband and I strategize to find two professorships in the same university? When someone mentions the two-body problem, a palpable sense of collective panic seems to overtake the room. I can feel the married women around me bristle with the deep-seated fear that the roles of Academic and Wife/Mother are ultimately irreconcilable, and that some point they are going to have to choose.

Like many of my peers, though, I can’t help but feel left out of the work/life balance conversation. While I sympathize with “two-body” challenges, I have to admit that it’s alienating and sometimes painful to sit through these discussions, and I have come to resent the terminology we use to describe the predicament.

The two-body… problem? You mean, having a husband? And a child? That problem?

With all due respect, it seems like a pretty good problem to have.

I am a female scientist in her early 30’s. I have spent well over a decade in the dating world. In my twenties, I didn’t worry much about marriage or children. As someone with many close LGBT friends, I found marriage itself, and my right to it, problematic. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted kids, and I was annoyed by society’s presumption that I did. But more to the point, I figured I had plenty of time. I’d find my soulmate, if he existed, when the time was right.

I dated. It was challenging. When a boyfriend of four years abruptly walked out on me, I realized that finding a life partner was about so much more than love. It was about dedication, maturity, timing, self-knowledge, courage—in other words, things I had little enough control over in my own life, let alone a partner’s. Meanwhile, I had decided to pursue a career in science, and I knew from watching my female mentors that I would probably be battling institutionalized and internalized sexism for the rest of my career. The best thing I could do for my scientific life and my love life was to follow my inspiration, learn how to best wield my strengths and passions, and focus on being true to myself amidst the cacaphony of conflicting “you-shoulds” about femininity I knew I’d hear forevermore in the lab, in the classroom, in magazines, and in romantic comedies. I went off to graduate school with an open mind, an open heart, and a reckless optimism that everything would work itself out.

But if dating as a single working girl had been challenging, dating as a Ph.D. student was excruciating. My fellow graduate students were mostly single women or not-single men. Those few single guys, perhaps unbeknownst to them, had flocks of secret admirers subtly vying for their attention. It felt like a creepy repeat of high school, only older and dorkier. With men outside of the university, I inevitably ran into the same two problems. First, as a graduate student, I was transient by nature. Local guys with good jobs did not seem keen on the idea of leaving them to follow me around after I graduated, moving at least once for a postdoc and again for a tenure-track position with no guarantee of permanency. Two, the non-academic men I met had trouble understanding how I could possibly be so busy, and they never truly understood why I couldn’t just leave the lab at 5pm or half-ass a paper. I started to understand why female academics are more likely than their male counterparts to have an academic spouse.

I’m no Charlotte York – if you saw the permanent mud stains on my only pair of good dancing heels, you’d understand — but I can sympathize with her now in a way my feminist self never thought possible. While I’ve never considered marriage or children to be my life’s ultimate goal, the pinnacle of my existence, I do take love seriously. I take it seriously for the same reasons I take science seriously. I became a scientist because I am a thoughtful, curious, inquisitive person who thinks the world is a pretty darned amazing place. My dedication to uncovering new truths about the universe is my way of paying homage to its intricate brilliance. I see love in a similar light. It’s a complex, beautiful thing that deserves the highest honor, dedication, and homage. It is a privilege to devote oneself to it.

In my last year of graduate school, it dawned on me that I might not ever have this privilege. Yet another non-scientist guy had just decided my independence, self-awareness, and ambition – qualities he found alluring at first – were too much to put up with. I dejectedly searched the internet for information on freezing my eggs. ($10,000 a pop on a Ph.D. or postdoc salary? OK. Not an option.) I focused on science, leaning in to my dissertation in a way Sheryl Sandberg would be proud of.

But I was also leaning out. My dream job opened up at a university in a small midwestern town. I was excited at first. It was the perfect fit for me academically: excellent research fit, great colleagues and mentors, plentiful resources. But I started to worry that it would be the final nail in a loveless, childless coffin. I would have no friends or family within 1000 miles. I had never lived in such a small town. My friends from small towns said often that people back at home tended to marry younger. How much of a dating pool would there even be? It seemed that as a new professor, I could likely remain single for quite some time—maybe forever. My optimist side said to give it a chance, but my pragmatic side said I’d be taking a huge personal risk. In the end I decided it wasn’t worth it.

The result? I did not even apply for this job. This otherwise perfect job.

Ironically, I soon after met and began dating my current boyfriend, another academic who is one of the loveliest human beings I have ever met. The challenges we face as an unmarried couple on the job search – “one body” on paper, “two bodies” in reality – will have to wait for a future post. Suffice to say, although we hear all the time about the “two-body problem,” the “one-body problem” affects women’s decisions too. Nationally, women with more education tend to marry later. This means that if a pool of applicants for a postdoctoral or faculty position are all the same age, the women are more likely to be unmarried than their male counterparts. Single women are leaving academia and compromising their professional opportunities, just like married women.

And married women may have more benefits than they realize.Marriage comes with legal, social, cultural, and logistical privileges that extend into the academic sphere. A spouse and a family can provide the emotional support and sense of belonging that can make or break a difficult postdoc or your first year on the tenure-track. A spouse can subconsciously boost the image of a young female assistant professor in the eyes of her older colleagues, making her fit the “Professor” mold better than a single gal would. A spouse can help you afford to buy a house in an expensive college town. A spouse will keep you from running into your students on OKCupid.

It’s the 21st century. Structural and cultural norms around marriage and children are changing rapidly. Young people are juggling these changes alongside a growing multitude of professional demands. We have a long way to go in making the academy a tolerant workplace for women, but recognizing the way our institutions reinforce or reward traditional marriage and family structures is a good way to start.

When women thrive, science thrives; it’s good news for everyone. So as we work toward that common goal, let’s recognize that personal and family commitments take many forms.


48 thoughts on “Guest Post: The One-Body Problem

  1. Interesting post — I have used the phrase “one-body problem” to describe my own situation and that of other women faculty like me, who *are* married but committed the strategic error of marrying a non-academic. I’m in what the sociologists call a “reverse traditional” marriage, in which I am the primary income-earner (earning 4 times what he does) but, more importantly for our household which has been challenged by serious illnesses in our one child, I am also the only person in the marriage who’s ever had health insurance. (Yes, we are watching the Affordable Care Act very closely). My husband is and always has been a classical musician. He is a working classical musician who has won national competitions and has degrees from excellent schools, and he is quite busy, but he would frankly make more money per hour delivering pizza. People make choices, and on balance I have been happy with my choice; each of us is much more fulfilled in our careers than I think would have been possible if we were on our own. But I have been quite frustrated in my academic career by two prevailing assumptions: (1) that the academic woman is always the secondary income-earner in a household (regardless of gender of spouse); (2) that the typical academic household has two income earners. In fact, my expensive college town is so expensive that my family can’t afford to live in it. As a non-academic who has worked as university staff before, my husband is very poorly served by the existing spousal hire networks, which seem to think that only women are trailing spouses, and only women re-entering the workforce after childrearing at that. Strategically, I have no options; I can’t stomp my foot and threaten to leave if he isn’t provided with a departmental home. I have to confess to feeling some jealousy of two-academic couples who can at least stamp their feet a bit.

    • Yes, IBDMom, I have the same problem. I agree that sometimes I feel the system is better set up for two-academic couples than it is for an academic woman in a ‘reverse traditional’ marriage. I often get told I am lucky that my husband could so easily move around with me (he is self-employed, doing what he loves as a carpenter). There are aspects that are true, and that I’m incredibly grateful for, but it does come with its own set of challenges.

    • I’m in the same situation, with a non-academic and lower-earning spouse. I was on the market this year and in the fortunate position of getting multiple offers at schools with written spousal hire policies–only to be told after submitting all of my partner’s paperwork for the process that they couldn’t do anything because their policies extend only to spouses who could be faculty. Nevermind that he had experience as university staff. So now we’re in the frustrating position of moving without a clear sense of what he’ll be doing except “hopefully freelancing.”

  2. This is a fantastic post. It captures a real problem, that few people talk about openly. I have several close female colleagues who have made very serious career choices (ie. moving t-t jobs, declining t-t jobs, etc) because they are single and looking for love. It is a lot more challenging to admit this to inquiring colleagues than to say “there was nothing there for my partner”. At the end of the day the problem is the same — the academic lifestyle requires us to move a lot and reconcile our professional goals with our personal lives.

    • Exactly so. Just goes to re-enforce the sad fact that balancing an academic career with a family works best if you are able to live as a white male in the 1950’s where you married young and your wife stayed at home with the kids and was able to move freely. Because she was at home with the kids you could put in late hours doing research and publishing, so that you would make tenure and get grants.

  3. Yes, thank you for this post! As a single assistant professor living in a relatively small town, I completely empathize. I have made many lovely friends in the year and a half that I have lived here, but most of them are coupled up and starting families (though I adore kids and so I’m happy to have more little people in my life). I’ve been hesitant to start online dating, given the small town. Coupled with my own inherent homebody tendencies, most of the people I meet are affiliated with the university, which has its own set of downsides (and upsides). Now that I’ve settled into my job and the town and feel like I have a bit of mental space to try more new things, I’m trying to figure out how to expand my social circle in the year to come. But it’s going to be a long, slow process.

  4. Thanks for this post! I started a group by the name One Body Problem to discuss dating among the Earth Science Women’s Network a couple of summers ago when I was fed up with various guys I was attempting to date, and realized that other academic/science ladies could relate to my situation in ways my non-science and male friends could not. There was a strong response among the ESWN members. It’s definitely an issue, and I think it’s under-appreciated… or at least under-acknowledged. I still haven’t solved it!

  5. I can completely understand where you are coming from. I would like to add the isolation and loneliness that comes with being a single person in academia. I’ve moved a lot and most men I’ve dated really don’t appreciate independence, so I’m still alone. Single people aren’t invited out with couples, they do not have the support or someone to talk to at night like those in a relationship, and when everything seems so stressful – like you can’t handle anymore – it’s just you, alone, who has to handle it. Friends and family are great, but they cannot possibly be there for you like a partner can. I think it is absolutely an underacknolwedged circumstance. I hear friends complain that their husband is out of town and they are so lonely and all I can think is, “that’s me…everyday…24/7/365”. Additionally, I hear from my coworkers quite often that “you can work more because you don’t have a family to deal with”. This means I end up working twice as long as them, leaving me zero time to even think about trying to find someone in my tiny town.

    Thank you for bringing this into the forefront – I know that spouses and babies are important, but there’s a whole different story for those of us that are alone in this and it is never brought up or talked about.

    • Yes, A, I couldn’t have said it better myself. The isolation of academia truly magnifies the loneliness of being single, and vice versa. The comments on this post have really encouraged me, though, to feel that at least we are alone in this together.

    • Yes yes yes, this is my experience, and it’s so frustrating to have the ‘woman issue’ become the ‘children and partner’ issue – makes me feel like a failure as a woman as well as an academic imposter, which really doesn’t help!

  6. Thanks for the post – while I fit the description of 1-body described by IBDMom (and which universities seem completely clueless is an issue), I have to share that on the hiring side we have worried about if our smaller city size will be a negative when we make offers to single candidates. It’s even more challenging when we make offers to URM as our town is pretty homogeneously white, so finding a network if race matters in a partner will be even harder. Fortunately, while we’ve talked about if someone would say ‘no’ because of these concerns, it has never stopped us from making the offer. But does lead to awkward conversations on second visits when they ask about the social scene (um, I wouldn’t know – my ‘social scene’ is the zoo!)

    As for applying while dating rather than married – I still think that qualifies as a two-body problem and worth bringing up at a reasonable time (if the interview is going well and they ask about hobbies, etc – that’s a great time to ‘slip’ and mention your boyfriend.. which most interviewers will pounce on and say ‘what does he do’.. we DO want to make it work!)

    • Agreed; you can try to negotiate anything you want to. I’ve seen a woman negotiate a position for her boyfriend…

    • It’s true that marriage isn’t necessarily a criterion for a partner hire, but, at least in the humanities, I think it’s dangerous to bring up the possibility until an offer’s been made; absolutely possible that the issue could sway a search committee toward somebody else.

  7. Thank you for writing this! I’m a 33-year-old tenure-track assistant prof in a midsize town (half million metropolitan area) and can strongly relate to this and would love to see more discussion/acknowledgement of these issues. A couple years ago, during my postdoc, I had a sleepless night after a weekend workshop for aspiring female STEM professors where there was a whole lot of discussion of the two-body problem and the timing of children, but literally no discussion about work-life balance for those of us who had not [yet?] found life partners, but wanted them (I’ve also always wanted to be a parent). I’m not proud of it, but I think that sleepless night likely played a role in me trying to turn by then-casual relationship into a more long-term arrangement. That ultimately did not work out, despite sucking up a lot of my time and energy that would have been better spent on my career as a new t-t prof. Now, in addition to worrying about securing tenure, I now wonder about the odds of meeting and vetting a suitable/available co-parent before my fertility goes downhill. I may freeze eggs. I am glad to have had the amazing career opportunities I’ve had, but I do wish that they meshed better with having a personal life. I’de like to see more/broader recognition of the issues single women face in academic careers during discussions of work-life balance and such.

    • I could’ve written something similar. I thanked my lucky stars I got a TT job in a decently sized city after my 5-y relationship failed. I was able to meet my now-boyfriend on OkC before any of the grad students knew who I was.

      This is such an important problem. I chose between two good postdoc positions based on the dating opportunities one offered (ahem, in the city, not at work)–my relationship was on the rocks even then, partly from the moving. Although any relationship can have rough patches, on the whole, it is so much better to have a two-body problem than to feel like a major part of your identity–the part that wants to be in a loving, committed relationship–is continually sacrificed.

  8. Thank you for writing this, and for your honesty. It perfectly describes my circumstances, and those of many of my friends. At orientation for my tenure-track job in a small university town, I was excited to start work but also scanning the room for eligible guys (because in a small university town, let’s face it, your colleagues are your dating pool). Every male hire I met was already married or engaged. All of them. About half the women were single. Even having made friends after a few years, my local friends with extensive social networks claim they don’t know even one single straight man in his 30s.
    There’s also a real hesitancy in discussing these issues. Finding a partner is something that’s just supposed to magically happen to you – and if it doesn’t, at some point you must be the one to blame. And the effect for young female faculty, already vulnerable for multiple reasons, can be deeply isolating just at the time when they most need support. When I started my last postdoc in a big city, I was surrounded by other single people in their late 20s, men and women on the dating scene, mobile and ambitious like me. Fast-forward three years, and it seems like almost everyone my age is coupled off and married, and I’m automatically excluded from what should be natural support systems like friends and neighbors, too wrapped up in their kids’ Little League games or dinners with other couples to get to know their single neighbor.

  9. Great post! Currently, I am 35 years and holding a postdoc (1 year appointment). I am anxious to get pregnant again after losing the first baby a year ago. However, I feel it is never the right time, especially when I have to teach several classes and worry that my postdoc does not get renewal because I have to take maternity leave.

  10. Great post. As someone who has a two-body problem, it’s good to hear other perspectives. I would caution you and other single women not to demonize the two-body problem, though. I think many of the problems stem from the same roots: needing to move (a lot) to get positions and having a body clock that doesn’t wait for a permanent position paired with a permanent partner. Let’s work together to make the system better for young women as a whole and everyone will benefit.

    • “I would caution you and other single women not to demonize the two-body problem, though.”

      Wait — has anyone here come even close to doing that? I find this reaction so odd! It reminds me of when (usually) men respond to a post primarily about a woman’s experience with, “Hey, this happens to men, too. Let’s not forget about the menz!”

      I thought this was a wonderful post. The two-body problem gets tons of attention as is — no need to worry that anyone is going to “demonize” it or forget about it.

      • No, I think there is some confrontational language here in the post. I very much appreicate the point that we need to consider all the challenges women face — especially early career women — but when single women start resenting the attention to the “two body problem” then it becomes confrontational. I’d argue that the problems that single women and married women and women with children face within academia stem from the same shortcomings.

        Here is some of the language that I felt was confrontational towards women with multi-body problems.

        > The two-body… problem? You mean, having a husband? And a child? That problem?
        > With all due respect, it seems like a pretty good problem to have.

        My response would be: don’t assume what another person’s experience is like before walking in their shoes. The author has NO idea what these problems are like; they aren’t the same as hers and I don’t think it’s helpful to anyone to say that some people’s problems are better or worse than others’. I’d rather see us all address the underlying problems, as I mention in my comment rather than say, “it’s worse for me!” “no, it’s worse for me!”

        • “The two-body… problem? You mean, having a husband? And a child? That problem? With all due respect, it seems like a pretty good problem to have.”

          So that, for you, constitutes “demonizing”? Since we’re being so hyper-aware of language here, you may want to look that word up.

          My response to you is: this post isn’t about you. It really isn’t. Not being able to listen to someone else’s pain without immediately thinking about how it *might* affect you strikes me as rather self-involved. I thought it was very clear that this post was not engaging in Oppression Olympics.

          • And I would point out that you’re focusing too narrowly on a single word. As I said, “Great post. As someone who has a two-body problem, it’s good to hear other perspectives” and “Let’s work together to make the system better for young women as a whole and everyone will benefit.” Please stop picking fights where there don’t need to be any.

          • @Margaret: Sorry, but you don’t get to parse other people’s words and then insist that it not be done to you. What is not needed, in a post that brings up a topic that is *rarely* discussed, is the insistence that we not forget or demonize that which has been front and center for a long time. Again, this isn’t about you. Not this time. Not this one damn time! Why is that so hard to accept?

    • Margaret, I completely agree that making the system better will benefit all of us. It has taken me years to work up the courage to write this post because I was so worried about two-bodyers finding it offensive. I tried to be as delicate and careful with my language as possible so that I could properly express the pain of my own personal experience without invalidating the very difficult experiences of my dear friends and colleagues who are struggling to balance dual careers and children.

      Many of the two-body and one-body problems stem from the same roots, as you say. There are other problems that are very different, and I have yet to see the “one-body” challenges discussed anywhere else. Many single women are too ashamed to even bring this up, and that is what prompted me to finally start talking about it.

      This post was intended to bring attention to those problems, but certainly not to claim that it’s worse for anyone. The “it’s worse for me!” discussion is not productive, as you say below. Since none of us can walk in anyone else’s shoes, the most important thing is for us to listen to and respect each others’ experiences with an open heart. Fixing the “leaky pipeline” requires understanding why the leaks are there in the first place. I strongly feel this post brings up unattended leaks that we’ll all need to understand as we work together to make the academic experience better for all women (one-, two-, and multi-bodied alike).

      • Thanks again for writing this post. I agree that it’s an important perspective and one that is not heard enough. I certainly wasn’t offended. I think knowing about the challenges of single women can really strengthen the cause for all young women scientists and we should bring them out into the light. Hopefully your post will encourage others to start blogging about their challenges, too. It’s a lot easier for people to dismiss the “two-body” problem if it’s perceived to be a problem for only a minority of women. But if underlying causes like frequent moves, lengthening graduation times, etc. are actually harmful to the majority of women, then these problems are more likely to be addressed.

    • Thanks for writing this post. I wasn’t familiar with the one-body two-body terminology (though it all resonates now that I’ve read this post). I’m in a strange “in-between” state (within this dialogue) being married but with enduring fertility challenges, which has made me feel invisible or not belonging to either groups (with families or without partners). This post has been really illuminating for me in terms of how we can all find a way to discuss gendered work-life issues regardless of what “stage” we’re in, and support one another. Academia is tough and is still punitive for women, unfortunately. This post help create a little more space.

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  12. Thank you for this post! I think you bring up some really great points. I’m married, and am dealing with the 2-body problem, but I have a lot of colleagues (and students!) who aren’t. They’re often frustrated that marriage and childbirth issues dominate women-in-science or work-life-balance discussions. Single friends with dogs lament that they can’t leave work mid-day to care for their pets, while people with kids are often supported when they need to run to daycare. We don’t support women with families very well, but it IS a visible problem and we are at least talking about it.

    I honestly don’t know what I’d do if I hadn’t met my now-husband just before I left arrived in grad school — in the same town I was headed to, via a mutual friend. I look back on the people I met, and I don’t really see that finding a partner would have been feasible. And, certainly, dating compounds the two-body-problem for many of my friends, who feel they need to get married in the midst of uncertainty on the job market, or for health insurance, or if a partner has a citizenship concern.

    I hope we can find a way to validate women regardless of life circumstance, and that the space is available to tell these kinds of stories, too.

  13. It is food for thought, but no one else found this piece very hetero-normative? Sure there was the passing mention of LGBT friends and their issues with marriage, but overall I feel like this could be speaking to more people if it were a little more open-ended – I like how it ends with the fact that personal and family commitments come in many forms – and I think thats the big take away; married, single, gay, straight, poly, whatever, the major point seems to be that traditional marriage and family structure should not be as rewarded as they are in the institution of academia. But that was kind of buried in what seemed like a more personal piece that was hard for me, anyway, to relate to.

    • Every post here is ultimately a personal piece, since each is based on its author’s experiences and research (even when we try to generalize what we have gone through to help others). We hope that missing perspectives can be filled in by guest posts, which we always welcome and encourage!

      • agree – no-one who is posting or commenting has any obligation to present anything other than their own experience or point of view. None of us who are lurking and/or commenting has any right to say what a blog post *should* or *should not* have said, but if we have another point to add, then we are free to add it (thanks to the TSW team).

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  17. Thank you so, so much for this post. I am a postdoc dealing with faculty job applications and struggling with this problem (recently broken up with my partner). I want to have a family and children, and I feel very isolated in dealing with my existential angst about how I’ll fulfill those personal goals. These aren’t concerns that are easily talked about in a professional setting, and in general they are not taken seriously by my two-body friends. It is not socially acceptable to be honest about how scary it feels.

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  19. Thank you for sharing your thoughts. I am partnered to a non-academic and have a child, and I feel that the one-body problem as you’ve so eloquently drawn it is very real, present, and over-looked.

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